An early episode dispatches Margaret — Elizabeth’s antithesister, a jet-setter who craves the spotlight — on a diplomatic mission to charm the boorish new American president, Lyndon B. Johnson (Clancy Brown, whose impression does not spare the hot sauce). The 1969 moon landing precipitates a midlife crisis for Philip. Elizabeth’s reactionary uncle, Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), emerges as a schemer to rival Dance’s Tywin Lannister from “Game of Thrones.”
Elizabeth tends to recede in these stories, especially in the back half of the season, in which Charles’s growing alienation from his family plays as a long-game setup for the Chuck-and-Di story we’re promised in Season 4. (I only wish this season did more with his sister, Erin Doherty’s lockjawed, sharp-tongued Princess Anne, who’s a tonic and a delight.)
But each episode returns to the queen thematically, many of them ending with a conversation about the virtue of a dull, inactive monarchy. “Doing nothing,” she says with conviction, “is what we do.” These scenes can get heavy-handed; “The Crown” has a weakness for having its characters spell out its themes, like a proclamation on a gilded scroll.
The very broadness and sweep that keep “The Crown” lively can also hold it back. It’s a portmanteau of many different kinds of drama: domestic, romantic, military, political, even espionage. It does all of them well, but none surprisingly. Its control precludes the wildness at the heart of many of the greatest series. This show can be, like a distant monarch, easier to revere than to feel passion for.
But the series’s time-lapse version of history — a sort of royal “7 Up” — remains a refreshing way of approaching a much-told story. In a way, the real subject of “The Crown” not so much the monarchy as it is time, as comes clear when Elizabeth matter-of-factly appraises the woman in the royal portrait, the way you or I might accidentally catch ourselves in the mirror.
“Age is rarely kind to anyone,” she says. “Nothing one can do about it. One just has to get on with it.” One has to respect that attitude. One might even call that respect a kind of love.